Archive for April 26th, 2008

Industrial unrest: Chicken Little?

April 26, 2008

Today’s SST includes a warning from Engineers Union Secretary Andrew Little of industrial action over wages claims: “I think that’s without doubt. The scale of it I couldn’t predict, but I’m detecting among our members a real determination and good on them.”

Coincidentally, Statistics NZ released the latest statistics on industrial action (lockouts included) last Tuesday: “Twenty-nine work stoppages ended in the December 2007 year… This compares with 42 stoppages for the December 2006 year. Stoppages in the December 2007 year involved 3,980 employees, and losses of 11,035 person-days of work and $1.9 million in wages and salaries. In comparison, the 42 stoppages in the December 2006 year involved 10,079 employees, and losses of 27,983 person-days of work and an estimated $5.2 million in wages and salaries.”

Why the gap between Little’s warning and reality? Why, over the 7 1/2 years that the Employment Relations Act 2000 has been in force — during which we’ve seen an unprecedented tightening of the labour market — has there been so little industrial disruption? Since 2000, stoppages have ranged between 53 and 29 annually, well down from the peak of 567 in 1977.

After all, remember the doomsayers on the right, led by Prebble predicting unionist “jackboots” in our workplaces? Remember the desperate attempts of Wayne Mapp, National’s hapless IR spokesperson, to seize any hint of increased industrial action to prove that the sky was falling on our heads?

It seems that, with wage increases at or around the rate of inflation, NZ workers have been happy enough at work (the lower paid excepted). In a tight labour market, unhappy workers or those looking to improve their pay and conditions, have been able to switch jobs relatively easily.

There is very real pressure on the lower paid, on whom the price rises on household necessities impact greatest. But they were left without union representation in the first months of the Employment Contracts Act, and with 90% or so still left to their own devices, there’s not much likelihood of industrial action there. (Matt McCarten’s Unite aside.)

We are entering a new era for the ERA; it has never been tested on rough roads before. My pick is that industrial disputation will increase, and may very well surpass the 53 stoppages recorded in 2005. But the sky won’t fall on our heads. Andrew Little might finish up looking like Chicken Little.